What Happens When You Do and Don't Forgive Back to Index

What Happens When You Do and Don't Forgive
July 27, 2008

Wesley United Methodist Church


He was one of the most earnest religious seekers in the congregation. He joined every study group, participated in almost every event the church offered; yet he remained unfulfilled, even miserable. He was driven. He lacked joy. One day he told his story to the pastor, and confessed how angry he was with his business partner who had misused company money, and had forced the company into bankruptcy some fifteen years before. For fifteen years, he had been unable to forgive his partner. For fifteen years, he was unable to give up his anger and experience forgiveness, joy, or peace.

I'm beginning a series of messages on a topic that many find difficult—forgiveness. This morning we will look at what happens when you do and when you don't forgive.

But, first, what is forgiveness? According to Webster, “To forgive is to give up resentment against or the desire to punish; to stop being angry with, to pardon, to overlook.”

There are four types of forgiveness.

  1. Forgiveness by God. Are you looking for God's forgiveness?
  1. Forgiveness of ourselves. Have you forgiven yourself?
  1. Forgiveness by others. Are there people from whom you need to ask forgiveness? Have you hurt someone intentionally or unintentionally? Have you let someone down, failed to fulfill a promise, were not there when they needed you? Did you say something you are sorry you said? Is there a strain on the relationship?
  1. Forgiveness of others. Do you need to forgive someone who has wronged you? Have you been hurt? Has someone said something about you that hurt? Have you been let down? Have you been mistreated, abused? Are you angry? Do you have your hands around someone's throat? A graphic, powerful image from The Shack, by William Young? The businessman, for fifteen years, had his hands around his partner's throat. 

Consider what happens when we aren't forgiven and/or when we don't forgive.

When we don't forgive there is loss of control. The man who would not forgive his partner gave power to his partner and allowed himself to be controlled by anger and resentment. Not forgiving might also lead to addiction—allowing alcohol or drugs or sex to take control, to have power over us. Not forgiving and losing control diminishes one's self-respect and self-esteem, allowing others to manipulate and demand that they are served, that their needs are dominant. Abused persons who have been unable to forgive struggle with feelings of impotence, lack of self-worth and the inability to love. They have lost control, are not in charge of their lives, and are unable to live to their fullest potential. Because they have been abused and hurt, they are afraid no one will love them so they pretend to be someone they are not.

When we don't forgive, relationships are crippled. My father-in-law refused to speak to his older sister. He accused her of taking undue advantage of their father by taking the farm and disinheriting her siblings. He refused to forgive her. For 35 years, he did not speak to her; but, he did go to her funeral!

When we don't forgive, there are health problems. Research shows that resentment and lack of forgiveness raises blood pressure, depletes immune function, makes us more easily depressed, causes enormous stress to the body, and prevents us from losing weight.

When we don't forgive, we are oppressed by guilt. Absorbed, paralyzed by guilt.

When we don't forgive, there is spiritual bankruptcy. We simply cannot grow spiritually if our hearts are polluted with resentment, envy, anger, jealousy, judgment, criticism or any other form of unforgiveness. Unforgiveness breaks our relationship with God. We try to pray and run into a brick wall. We dip into the well of our spiritual reserves and there is nothing there.

What happens when there is no forgiveness is loss of control, crippled relationships, health problems, oppressive guilt, and spiritual bankruptcy. 

That's enough negative! Let's look at what happens when we experience forgiveness. To refresh your memory, there are four acts of forgiveness: Forgiveness by God, forgiveness of ourselves, forgiveness by others, and forgiveness of others. Consider now the benefits of forgiveness.

Forgiveness promotes better health. When we experience forgiveness, we will have better health. Blood pressure will decrease. Immune function will be strengthened. There will be less stress, less depression, and we might even lose weight!

Forgiveness prevents cancer. Yes, it has been shown that cancer has its beginnings in unresolved grief or trauma approximately 5-7 years prior to the onset of the disease. Forgiveness can interrupt the progress of cancer.

Forgiveness produces more energy. It takes an enormous amount of energy to hang on to repressed feelings like anger, blame, resentment, disappointment, need for revenge, etc. When forgiveness is experienced, an incredible amount of energy is released that then becomes available for living our lives as God intended.

Forgiveness promotes freedom. Forgiveness results in freedom from the pain of the past, freedom from the weight of emotional baggage, freedom to be who we truly are, and freedom to build relationships based on love and mutual respect.

Forgiveness produces power. When we forgive, we take back power from those we had given it to, and we are empowered to create the life we want.

Forgiveness promotes spiritual growth. Forgiveness is taught, but largely ignored, by every major religion. Jesus taught us to forgive others as we are forgiven. In the Scripture lesson read today, Colossians 3.13, Paul wrote, “Forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven you.” Judaism's holy days—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur call for atonement. Atonement means to be reconciled with God, to be forgiven by God. Buddhism calls for ceaseless empathy and compassion towards everyone, especially enemies. The Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita, says, “If you want to see the brave, look for those who can love in return for hatred.” In the Koran, the angel Gabriel tells Mohammed to set aside vengeful anger. Don't we wish Al Qaeda were Muslims who believed and practiced setting aside vengeance!

The benefits of forgiveness include better health, cancer prevention, more energy, freedom, power and spiritual growth.

During a Walk to Emmaus weekend (the Walk is a spiritual walk, not a physical walk), a woman told me about the heavy burden she was carrying-- a load of guilt. It was affecting her family, her job, her church work. She was very active in her church, but there was no joy. She was too ashamed of herself. Before her marriage, she had an abortion. The memory was killing her. I asked her if her husband knew about it. She said, “Yes.” I asked her if she believed God had forgiven her. “Yes,” she said, "but, I can't forgive myself.” I encouraged her to give her guilt to God, to let it go, to accept God's forgiveness. In the Walk to Emmaus, there is a ritual that helps people give up their burdens. I encouraged her to participate wholeheartedly. I said, “Let the guilt go, and don't take it back. Give it to God and let it go.” She did, and the joy in her face, her uproarious laughter, and spontaneous hugs testified to her new life. She knew she was forgiven, and she had forgiven herself.

What happens when you do and when you don't forgive has far reaching consequences. Next Sunday, let's further consider: WHAT TO DO WITH GUILT.

© 2008 Douglas I. Norris